Sleep walking (also called somnambulism) is a behavior in which the child gets up during the night and walks or does other activities. The child usually does not remember getting up or being engaged in the activities.
More common in children than adults, sleepwalking is usually outgrown by the teen years. Sleepwalking in adults has a higher chance of being confused with or coexisting with other sleep disorders as well as medical conditions.
Sleep walking usually occurs early in the night — often one to two hours after falling asleep. It’s unlikely to occur during naps. A sleepwalking episode can occur rarely or often, and an episode generally lasts several minutes, but can last longer.
Someone who is sleep walking may:
• Get out of bed and walk around
• Sit up in bed and open his or her eyes
• Have a glazed, glassy-eyed expression
• Not respond or communicate with others
• Be difficult to wake up during an episode
• Be disoriented or confused for a short time after being awakened
• Not remember the episode in the morning
• Have problems functioning during the day because of disturbed sleep
• Have sleep terrors in addition to sleepwalking
Sometimes, a person who is sleep walking will:
• Do routine activities, such as getting dressed, talking or eating
• Leave the house
• Drive a car
• Engage in unusual behavior, such as urinating in a closet
• Engage in sexual activity without awareness
• Get injured, for example, by falling down the stairs or jumping out a window
• Become violent during the period of brief confusion immediately after waking or, occasionally, during sleepwalking
Causes of sleep walking include:
• Hereditary (the condition may run in families).
• Lack of sleep or extreme fatigue.
• Interrupted sleep or unproductive sleep, from disorders like sleep apnea (brief pauses in the child’s breathing pattern during sleep).
• Illness or fever.
• Certain medications, such as sleeping pills.
• Stress, anxiety.
• Going to bed with full bladder.
• Noises or touches.
• Changes in sleep environment or different sleep setting (example: a hotel).
• Head injuries.
Sleep walking itself isn’t necessarily a concern, but a person who sleepwalks can:
• Hurt themselves — especially if they walk near furniture or stairs, wander outdoors, drive a car or eat something inappropriate during a sleepwalking episode
• Experience prolonged sleep disruption, which can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness and possible school or behavior issues
• Be embarrassed or experience problems with social relationships
• Disturb others’ sleep
• Rarely, injure someone else nearby
For children who sleepwalk more often, doctors may recommend a treatment called scheduled awakening. This treatment works as follows: for several nights, record the time between when your child falls asleep and the beginning of the sleepwalking event.
Then, for the next several nights in a row, rouse your child 15 minutes before the expected time of the sleepwalking event. You do not need to completely awaken the child — simply disturb the sleep enough to cause a brief stirring. This momentarily interrupts the sleep cycle and may stop the sleep walking in some cases.
Other ways to try to reduce your child’s sleepwalking include the following:
• Have your child relax at bedtime by listening to soft music.
• Establish regular nap and sleep schedules and stick with them. Naps are important in the younger child. This will eliminate sleep deprivation (a lack of sleep), a known trigger for sleepwalking.
• Cut back on the amount of liquids your child drinks in the evening and make sure he or she goes to the bathroom before bedtime (a full bladder may contribute to sleepwalking).
• Avoid caffeine near bedtime (caffeinated products include coffee, tea, colas, some non-cola pops, energy drinks, and chocolates).
• Make sure your child’s bedroom is quiet, calm, comfortable, cool (less than 75° F) and dark.
If stress is thought to be contributing to the problem, your child may benefit from counseling, hypnosis or biofeedback. On rare occasions, doctors may prescribe a medication to help your child sleep.
Eliminate Safety Risks
Harm reduction is an important consideration for people who sleepwalk. Some ways that safety risks can be reduced include:
• Keeping sharp objects or weapons locked away and out of reach
• Closing and latching doors and windows
• Removing tripping hazards from the floor
• Installing lights with motion sensors
• If necessary, using door alarms or a bed alarm that goes off if a person gets out of bed
Is It Safe to Wake a Person Who Is Sleepwalking?
Most experts advise against jarring awakenings for people who are in the middle of a sleepwalking episode. Because they aren’t aware of their situation, a jolting awakening may provoke fear, confusion, or anger.
If possible, you can try to lightly guide a sleep walking person away from potential dangers and back to bed. A quiet, soothing voice and at most a light touch may be useful in directing them.
If you do need to wake up a person who is sleep walking, try to do so in a way that is as gentle as possible, and be aware that they will most likely be disoriented upon waking up.
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